Pick of the Geek – Crash

David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel – a book that was once rejected for publication with the note “This author is beyond psychiatric help” – was hugely controversial on release, banned in several London boroughs and subject to a protracted hate campaign from the Daily Mail.  (Their film critic, Christopher Tookey, was particularly appalled that it showed people having sex with “cripples”)  For that reason, it became fashionable to dismiss it with the stock opinion of any liberal who doesn’t want to take sides in a culture war; “Actually, I thought it was boring”.  But Cronenberg is, as always, ahead of his critics.  He opened the film with three back-to-back sex scenes in the hope that it would inure viewers to the sight of his cast having sex.  Given the firestorm it opened to, that can be called a qualified success at best, but the strange affectlessness of the film – the way it tackles the two most elemental topics, sex and death, without seeming to raise its pulse – is exactly what the director was aiming for.  Ballard’s novel is essentially a satire, one that takes our culture’s obsession with sexualizing risk and consumer technology to its maddest extreme by creating a cult of people who can only reach orgasm through car crashes.  As the leader of the cult, Elias Koteas channels the mad scientists of Cronenberg’s early horror work to wickedly funny effect, and strong performances from James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger and Holly Hunter make the story more relatable than it sounds on paper.  Some of Ballard’s disciples – the ones whose sphere of interest begins and ends with the M25 – were worried by Cronenberg’s decision to shoot the London-set novel in his native Toronto, but the effect is another eerie dislocation, a nowhere-city comparable to what Ben Wheatley achieved with his adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise.  Cronenberg’s regular collaborator Howard Shore turns in one of his most inventive scores, perfectly capturing the film’s surface gloss and deep weirdness with its wash of electric guitars.

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